Author: chrisbell

PowerPoint is like a BMW – a great piece of kit that is usually driven by idiots.

I’ve driven a few BMW’s in my life and I’ve always been struck by how appallingly badly other drivers react on simply seeing the badge. The same is true of PowerPoint users. As soon as the projector is fired up, audiences are used to settling in for an hour or two of complete boredom.

PowerPoint suffers so much from over-familiarity. And, while it is packed with features, standing in front of even the most beautifully crafted slide-deck is a limiting experience. Explaining ideas usually works best when is framed around a loose kind of story telling. PowerPoint, though, demands a strict narrative structure with beginning, middle and end tightly connected to each other. Moving between different story elements is extremely clunky and far too many presentations end up stifled. Presenters will often flick back and forth between slides as they clamour for clarity.

Those of us who present for a living are therefore looking for alternatives, a vehicle for our ideas that won’t be maligned for simply existing, and one that allows a more natural flow for explaining ideas. And thankfully there are plenty of alternatives available.

Prezi is a tool that has the design conscious drooling. The swirling visuals and deep dive zooming are enough to pep up even the most jaded 3 day conference crowd. It also gives the speaker the chance to engage in ‘non-linear’ discourse. In other words, while there may be a pre-planned route through a story, Prezi lets you take detours and fly off at tangents before coming back to your main thrust.

Prezi is very easy to use. Spend an hour playing with the tool and even the modestly techno-phobic will be comfortable with the main features. There is also plenty of scope for collaboration with some nice synchronisation between the desktop client and the online hosting service.

That said, while it is visually stunning, there is very little scope for self-expression with colours and fonts. Undoubtedly this will improve over time. As will the need to use highly visible borders around graphics and text to make the animations work. Output comes in the form of a flash file, so don’t expect Prezi on an iPad anytime soon.

Another intriguing PowerPoint alternative is the Visual Understanding Environment or VUE. This is a project from Tufts University and it wears its academic heritage on its sleeve. And there has clearly been a lot of beard-tugging going on in its design. The idea that makes VUE unique is the way it builds layers of information – a ‘mind mapping’ layer to help organise thoughts, a pathways layer to link thoughts together, and finally a presentation layer that pretties everything up in a PowerPoint kind of way.

What VUE lacks in visual immediacy is more than made up for by the flexibility afforded by these layers. Where PowerPoint may require a separate mind mapping tool to organise thoughts and then a labourious process of transcribing ideas into slides, VUE takes care of all of this. And what’s more, the ‘Add Most Relevant Flickr Image’ function takes care of the time consuming picture-editing process that is the heart and soul of a good presentation.

While not as intuitive as PowerPoint or Prezi, VUE is a real breath of fresh air for those looking for a new way of presenting. The concept is fantastic, allowing for linear and non-linear presentations with complete control over look and feel. The layers are strong but flexible and provide a direct link between original ideas and the finished presentation. Output to pdf puts notes and images alongside each other, akin to PowerPoint’s handouts.

Here’s a graphic I’ve just put together to explain to businesses that still don’t get it just why the social web matters. The bigger the circle the bigger the potential audience.

Corporate websites are usually full of stale and out-of-date content that may be highly relevant to the company’s business areas but that is hard to find (unless you are looking for it directly). Corporate blogs have very few regular visitors and are only updated when in-house bloggers have the time.

Compare this to the huge audience waiting on the Social Web, which is powered largely by Facebook and Twitter. Here, content is fresh – in the case of Twitter, almost too fresh! – is easy to share and, importantly, can be found almost by chance. Serendipity to us means ‘finding interesting things when you weren’t really looking for them’.

This is the challenge that businesses have to adapt to. The game has changed. Embracing the social web is not a ‘nice to do’, it’s an imperative.

context (n) – Extra information that helps make sense of the world.

Example – you find a skull in the woods. The extra information you find at the scene gives you the context to decide what to do next. If you also find a dismembered skeleton, you call the police. If you find a chariot wheel and some arrow heads, you call the British Museum.

Fiddy demonstrates the 50% rule by standing in front of big text.

I thought everyone got this. Apparently not.

I spent Friday sitting in on an all day business review meeting with a customer. This, by the way, is a company with some global standing that is poised to revolutionise its industry and many of those around it. Great products, great people and great energy in the room. Ok – great energy in the room to start with. And great energy again just after lunch had been taken. Unfortunately the 6 point font size on everyone’s PowerPoint slides had a few thousand-yard stares forming by the middle of the afternoon.

The meeting would have been much more effective if the Fifty Per Cent rule had been rigidly applied.

The Fifty Per Cet rule is simplicity itself. When cobbling together a PowerPoint slide full of text, without a care in the world nor a thought for the audience, stop and perform a simple calculation. Work out (or estimate) the average age of your audience and divide by two. This number should be your MINIMUM font size. MINIMUM!

If you are running a meeting and have control over the template that people will be using to present their information, insist that this rule is used by all participants. If necessary, impose fines for every character below the minimum size.

There is simply no point in being in a meeting where you have to squint at a slide to work out that you can’t work out what you are looking at. Stop it. Or Fiddy’ll pop a cap in yo ass…

Visual musing:

I’ve been looking for a way to describe the topsy-turvy nature of the Social Web for a piece of work when I stumbled (again) on Escher’s famous perspective defying pictures. Perfect!

This picture encapsulates the relationship between the people that produce, filter and ultimately consume content on the web. To the estate of the great Mr Escher, I offer my apologies.

These are the world’s top performing CEO’s according to the Harvard Business Review (Jan 2010). A handsome bunch I’m sure you’ll agree. And doubtless, if ever you found yourself in the boardroom, meeting these guys you would be extremely eager to impress. So you’d brush up on your latest business school ideas and dust off your finest theories, polish up your buzzwords and fill your mouth with jargon.


But then you get into the meeting and you find out that…

… only 16 out of the 50 have an MBA.

They vast majority are not going to be at all impressed with your ‘tactical, logic-based scenario’ and your ‘pro-active, integrated opportunity’*. And, let’s be honest, the guys with MBA’s are probably much smarter than you anyway.

So rather than trying to impress the guys at the top with a mouthful of nonsense, pare everything back to its simplest and speak common-sense.

*MBA gibberish courtesy of the Business Jargon Generator at

Starters for Ten are our gift to you. Thought provoking, moderately controversial opening slides to set your presentation off on the right foot. At least, a different foot to the other guy. And the guy before him.

What you see here is available to download as an annotated PowerPoint slide. You can subscribe to updates or send us ideas for more.

clown slide

What’s the worst that can happen? Seriously. What is the very worst thing that could happen right now? Having the desk collapse and crush your legs? Watching your computer suddenly burst into flames, taking with it all of your hard work and cherished family photos? Being attacked by a group of murderous, smelly ninja kangaroos armed with flaming nunchuckas that won’t stop beating you up until you’ve learned to speak fluent ancient Greek?

What ever situation you’re in, it’s probably not as bad as the worst possible case scenario. But, what’s the best possible case? You win a deal that turns out to be ten times bigger than you were expecting, which pays you 300% of your bonus allowing you to pay off your mortgage and retire to the Bahamas?

So while your current situation may not be the best possible case, it certainly isn’t the worst possible case. And at least you have a clear idea of where you actually want to be. Also, it’s worth remembering that if you’re going to be miserable now, there’s a really good chance you’d be miserable in the Bahamas.

So compare where you are now to the worst possible situation and laugh about it. Then think about how to get to where you want to be, and laugh about that, too. And keep laughing, because the best way to make a success of things is to realise that it’s all a game and you’ll enjoy playing it more if you have a smile on your face.

Picture courtesy of steenslag.10button

Florence Nightingale did a great many things for the world. Cleaining up hospitals was principle among them. Inventing the pie chart was another.

When she first presented the pie chart to the Royal Statistical Society it caused a sensation. Even today, pie charts cause a sensation – usually one of torpour.

Information is extremely powerful. Look at any one of a thousand powerpoint slide decks and you will see charts and graphs aplenty outlining everything you could possibly want to know. Unfortunately for the presenter, their audience will instantly forget every single piece of data.

The trick is usually to tell a story about your data to bring it to life and make it memorable. Or, even better, make your data itself tell a story. Here is a remarkable example of what we mean:

Visualizing empires decline from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo.

Next time you contemplate putting a pie chart into your presentation, please think long and hard. It has hard a long and useful life, but would be far more usefully left to die quietly.

Starters for Ten are our gift to you. Thought provoking, moderately controversial opening slides to set your presentation off on the right foot. At least, a different foot to the other guy. And the guy before him.

What you see here is available to download as an annotated PowerPoint slide. You can subscribe to updates or send us ideas for more.

It's not rocket science

People don’t like to admit it, but even rocket science isn’t rocket science. Think about it – you have a rocket, you know how much it weighs, you know how hard gravity pulls the rocket back to earth; you know how hard the engines push it, you know how much fuel they burn; you know how much lighter the rocket gets, you can work out how quickly the rocket becomes light enough and far enough from earth that gravity doesn’t pull it back down. Rocket science is three simultaneous equations. It’s not even A-Level maths. Which is not to say it isn’t difficult, but it’s not the pinnacle of difficulty that people would have you believe.

Today the average family of four carries with them more computing power than was used during the Apollo moon missions. All of them. Including at ground control.

Rocket science is more about hard work, determination and funding than it is about confronting complex theories. In that sense we are all capable of being ‘rocket scientists’.

Picture courtesy of yeowatzup 10button

bathos – noun
1. a ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace; anticlimax.
2. insincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness.
3. triteness or triviality in style.
4. adding the suffix ‘OS’ to a trade name in the hope that it sounds open-source